Effective Leadership During Crisis: A Whole Brain® Guide

Effective Leadership During Crisis: A Whole Brain® Guide

Crises can strike at any time and in many forms — a financial crisis, natural disaster, business disruption, or even political upheaval. No matter how talented or prepared your organization is, you need strong leadership during a crisis if you want to emerge safely on the other side.

Learn what skills you need during a crisis, how to develop a crisis management plan that adapts to circumstances, and how Whole Brain® Thinking can improve your organization's resiliency.

Understanding the Importance of Strong Leadership During Crisis

A business crisis is a sudden, unexpected event that threatens to disrupt an organization's operations. What rises to the level of a crisis? Anything that threatens an organization's reputation, finances, or very existence.

Crisis management is the process of dealing with a crisis — identifying the problem, developing a response, and executing that plan. Crisis management is often considered reactive.

Crisis leadership, on the other hand, is proactive. It's about how your organization or team prepares for a crisis. Crisis leadership includes exploring likely scenarios and developing communication and response plans, but it goes beyond that. Crisis leaders also need to be able to think strategically and make decisions quickly to minimize the impact.

How leaders respond to a crisis and their leadership styles will set the tone for the entire organization. If leaders are calm and collected, employees are more likely to remain calm and collected. But if leaders panic or become overly emotional, employees are likely to do the same. 

Why does crisis leadership matter? Here are a few reasons.

Minimizes ‌Negative Effects 

Time is of the essence when a crisis strikes. You don’t want to be unresponsive — or even appear that way. On the other hand, crisis leadership is about responding the right way, not just with meaningless activity. 

Great leaders assess the situation, create a response, secure the resources they need, communicate the plan, and get to work. While it’s too late to prevent the problem, they can still minimize the negative impact. 

Protects Your Employees

Your employees are trying to solve the crisis, but they’re also grappling with it. They’re likely in a fragile state emotionally with lower morale. In rare cases, you’re literally trying to protect employees from injury or worse. 

Crisis-ready leaders embrace their responsibility for the workforce. Their response plans prioritize employee safety and well-being. These leaders empower employees to help with ‌crisis response by providing the necessary resources and clear communication. Your workforce performs better when they trust the organization, and that’s never more apparent than during a crisis. 

Avoids the Next Crisis

Crisis management is an important quality, especially in large organizations or companies whose work carries inherent risks. But the goal is to prevent fires (literally and figuratively), not just put them out. 

Leaders who invest in crisis leadership and preparation are actively scouting for the next crisis. This might include known risk areas, such as cybersecurity, or less-predictable events, such as an unusually strong natural disaster.

Strong leadership during a crisis also gives employees and other stakeholders the confidence to respond quickly because they believe in the plan and have received clear communications. This trust can endure beyond the immediate crisis as your workforce feels empowered to flag future crises earlier.

Leading in a Crisis: Key Skills and Traits

When a crisis hits, leaders must quickly assess the situation, evaluate their options, and respond. That’s not all. They must understand the value of communication and logistics. And they must adapt their plans as events change. Here are some of the key skills and traits crisis leaders need.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

In a crisis, a leader needs to be able to stay calm under pressure and think clearly. They must also be able to take counsel, filter through opinions and data, and use this additional information to inform their decisions. 

When you have a team with a variety of thinking preferences, you can leverage your team to assess multiple perspectives and collaboratively create better ideas than any individual could on their own.

Doing all of this is difficult when everything around you is chaotic. Great leaders act quickly without acting rashly.

Thinking on Your Feet

Thinking on your feet is an important skill because you often face novel situations for which there’s no time for detailed study. 

A leader should be able to identify the most pressing issues, prioritize them, and come up with a solution that’s effective and efficient. While you’ll ideally be working from a strong foundation in crisis management, there'll be moments where a quick decision is the only move.

Delegating Tasks and Responsibilities

Delegating tasks and responsibilities effectively is an important skill for crisis leadership because it allows leaders to effectively manage the workload. No leader can make every decision 24/7.

Delegating allows leaders to focus on the decisions only they can make. You also instill confidence in your teams while tapping into their skills and abilities. 

Communicating Effectively Verbally and in Writing

Communicating effectively, both verbally and in writing, is especially vital in larger organizations. Crisis management is a collective effort, and you need everyone to understand the goal and their role in achieving it — just like any important project.  Written communication is especially important during a crisis because verbal communication is harder to remember, much less scale. Moreover, depending on the crisis, you might legally be required to document your organization’s actions.

Leaders must provide accurate and timely updates and explain what’s being done to address the situation. They must communicate effectively with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Public-facing companies have to consider news coverage and social media criticism. 

Remaining Flexible and Adaptable

Leadership during a crisis is usually a series of important decisions, and those decisions (and your options) can change drastically depending on how conditions have shifted. Your initial plan can quickly become obsolete or raise new questions that you haven’t planned for. 

Flexible and adaptable leaders recognize when the status quo isn’t working, and they’re willing to put their egos aside to make the right adjustments. 

Displaying Empathy

Crises are stressful, and many people are frustrated, upset, or suffering from the effects of the crisis. Empathy is a powerful quality for leaders who want to connect with their stakeholders and help them see a path forward.

Empathy doesn’t mean avoiding tough decisions. In fact, it can lead to inclusive leadership and better decision-making. These crisis leaders are calm and composed in the face of adversity rather than reacting to fear or panic. Practicing empathy helps build trust, connection, and buy-in.

Being Decisive

Being decisive is perhaps the foundational skill during a crisis. While prudence and care are always important when making big decisions, a crisis elevates the need for action. 

Effective leaders know that hesitation is costly, especially when conditions are changing rapidly. These leaders quickly assess the situation, craft a plan, and take the leap.

Key Skills and Traits for Leading in a Crisis

Developing an Effective Crisis Management Plan

Crisis management plans help you get through the immediate danger. But it’s the long-term, strategic vision of crisis leadership that elevates your organization’s response capabilities while preventing many would-be crises.

Here are some of the key steps to developing a thoughtful crisis management plan.

Identify Potential Crisis Scenarios

Take time to think about all of the potential (and reasonably likely) crisis scenarios. Consider internal causes, industry-related events, natural disasters, technology issues, financial problems, customer service problems, and the like.

Then, assess and prioritize the risk of each potential crisis. Some scenarios are highly unlikely but would be devastating if they occurred and your organization wasn’t prepared. Consider the likelihood of the event itself, the potential impact, and the resources you have available to respond to and manage the crisis.

Next, starting with the highest-priority crisis scenarios, create a contingency and response plan for each. This plan should include a detailed description of the steps to prevent, respond to, and manage the crisis.

Create Response and Recovery Strategies

Your response and recovery strategies are likely the components that your workforce will experience most acutely during a crisis. Response strategies mitigate the impact of a crisis, while recovery strategies restore operations and return to normal as quickly as possible.

Both components are part of an overall organizational strategy, but they succeed when they are built with expert input from across the organization. These strategies should include:

Response strategies include:

  • What, when, and how to inform your stakeholders, customers, and the public (if applicable).
  • What your organization will do in the event of such a crisis.
  • The tasks and responsibilities for each function and job role — for example, who are the decision makers?

Recovery strategies, meanwhile, include:

  • A review of how operations were affected and who was affected. 
  • Who needs to be part of this process internally.
  • Who needs to be informed externally (authorities, shareholders, etc.).
  • The decision-making processes needed to restore the pre-crisis state.
  • A post-crisis discussion of what went well, what didn't, and how the next crisis could be prevented or better mitigated.

Implement Communication Protocols

Communication during a crisis is often the difference between a short, mild setback and a potentially fatal organizational setback.

Before any crisis hits, evaluate your existing communication protocols. Do they serve your current needs? How do they need to change depending on the type of potential crisis? Consider, too, what communication channels (your website, internal platforms, press releases, etc.) you’ll use to share important information.

While you’ll likely create best practices for crisis communication, make sure you adapt these protocols for each particular situation. For instance, your internal communications provider’s platform going down will inhibit regular internal communications. A reputational crisis, meanwhile, will require greater use of external channels.

Make sure the roles and responsibilities are clear. Who’s responsible for each type of communication during a crisis? Where should employees go for the latest, most trustworthy information? Who makes the final call if there’s internal disagreement on a communication strategy? 

Test Your Crisis Management Plan

There are many ways to test your crisis plan, including simulations and stress tests. 

During a simulation, for example, leaders should observe the team’s response and evaluate the effectiveness of the plan. Is the plan comprehensive? Is it clear and easily understood? Did it work? After the simulation, provide feedback and suggest improvements as needed.

Regularly Review the Plan

Your crisis plan is a living document. Regularly review to make sure your scenarios are still relevant and reflect modern conditions. For instance, your cybersecurity plan might need upgrading based on your current tech stack. Or your legal crisis scenarios might change based on new regulations sweeping your industry. 

As part of this review, make sure your workforce is familiar with your crisis management plans, especially new hires.

An Effective Crisis Management Plan

Using Whole Brain® Thinking in a Crisis

The Whole Brain® Thinking framework shines in crisis leadership because it allows you to view the crisis holistically. Using ‌the four quadrants, analytical (Blue), structural (Green), relational (Red), and experimental (Yellow), leaders can effectively analyze the situation and identify key information. 

The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI®) assessment offers visibility into the way you and your team think, communicate, and work at your best. When your employees take this assessment, they’ll get one set of scores showing the strength of their preference toward each of the four Whole Brain® Thinking quadrants. 

They’ll also get a second measure, their “Under Pressure” score. As the name suggests, this score reveals how your thinking preferences shift as you navigate stressful situations. Leadership during a crisis is the embodiment of being under pressure. 

When a leader is aware of their thinking preferences and how those change under pressure, they can be more thoughtful and aware of how they lead during those moments. Combine that insight with the “Under Pressure” scores of your colleagues to truly unlock greater understanding and cognitive diversity. 

Using the Whole Brain® Thinking framework during a crisis allows leaders to:

  • Use ‌fact-based information to be more agile and adaptive. Analytical thinkers gravitate toward facts, data, and research, especially during a crisis. By understanding how stress affects rational thinkers, you can help them excel without losing touch withhow their relational and experimental colleagues prefer to approach problems.
  • Prepare better for unexpected events. No crisis can be fully anticipated. Yet, when you can leverage strong processes and structural thinking, you’ll be better prepared to anticipate potential problems and develop contingency plans. 
  • Remain calm and focused in stressful situations. A crisis demands solutions and a structured, business-focused response. But don’t forget about how the crisis is affecting your team, customers, and other stakeholders. Understanding the human impact can unify your team and ease anxiety. 
  • Think outside the box for solutions. If you’re in a crisis, the status quo is obsolete. Whatever the answer — new tactics, products, technology, or something else — your team needs to be optimistic and open to other perspectives. 

Your “Under Pressure” HBDI® score doesn’t define you or your team. But you might need to work a little harder to access and understand the quadrants in which you feel less comfortable operating. At the team and organization levels, the Whole Brain® Thinking framework helps groups elevate their thinking and take a smarter approach to manage crises. 

Making Better Decisions in a Crisis

During times of crisis, leaders need to help everyone focus on what’s next. This is a daunting challenge, as you need to make good decisions quickly and without full certainty. While you need to leverage your problem-solving strengths, you also need to welcome other thinking preferences. Displaying leadership during a crisis requires you to stay calm, assess the facts, cultivate a range of perspectives, and act decisively. 

Learn more about creating resilience inside your organization to drive growth with this on-demand webinar.


The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.

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